My 2017 Reading List

Out of a modest total of 26, this year’s reading list includes 2 non-fiction, one self-help, one poetry collection, one book of short stories, one book in translation, a couple of re-reads from childhood, and one (pre-prize-announcement) Booker Prize winner for the year. So what I have not achieved in sheer numbers, I think I have compensated for with breadth of approach. It was a year of satisfying historical reads, long-awaited sequels, and (as always) unexpected gems.

Out of these 26 books, roughly 10 of them made me cry. No, I’m not going to specify which ones. Yes, I cry quite easily when I read.

img01

1. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Ever since K pointed out to me that the problem with literary fiction is that it’s always about old middle-aged white dudes having affairs, I haven’t been able to unsee it (damnit, K! *shakes fist*). This classic is very beautifully written (and the affair isn’t exactly the central point of the story), and I could appreciate it for the sheer artistry of the prose, but ultimately I couldn’t really tell you what the point of it all was. I know it gets studied a lot in senior English classes, but I couldn’t really tell you why.

On the plus side, the copy (which I borrowed from my parent’s bookshelves) was a lovely compact little hardback with a blue and gold paper cover over an embossed black hardback, with beautiful typography. So I appreciated it as a physical object, if nothing else.

2. About A Girl by Joanne Horniman

After my success with re-reading Joanne Horniman’s Secret Scribbled Notebooks last year, I continued on my mission to read more of her back catalogue. This one was specifically a young adult love story, but it did involve cats, so that gave it some bonus points. I also feel I can now say with certainty that Notebooks is by far the best of this author’s work.

3. The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard

I have this strange fascination for old-fashioned post-apocalyptica. This book felt quite similar to Nevil Chute’s On The Beach for some reason – written in 1962 and set in 2145, it has the same sort of old-fashioned sensibility about the end of the world. This is an early contribution to the ‘cli-fi’ genre, about a planet melted and drowned by global warming. Tropical jungle and swamps cover the streets of London, and giant iguanas and crocodiles are everywhere. It’s a futuristic spin-off of Heart of Darkness as well, but I won’t hold that against it. Weird, wonderful, a bit disturbing (and when it comes to its treatment of race and gender, an obvious product of its time).

4. Still Life With Teapot by Brigid Lowry

Subtitled ‘On Zen, Writing & Creativity’. This is a collection of autobiographical snippets, poetry, and bits of writing about writing by one of my all-time absolute favourite YA writers, and the one who has had the largest impact on my own writing style. In that weird confluence of literature that I keep experiencing, she also writes about Sei Shonagon (from my 2016 list) and briefly about Mary Oliver’s poetry. I felt very close to the author from reading this book. It is very honest, sometimes painfully so, and also hilarious.

5. When There’s Nowhere Else To Run by Murray Middleton

This is a collection of short stories that I borrowed from the library because I wanted to read some Vogel Award winners. Some of the stories in this collection were fairly bland, some were okay, and there are two that I think I will always remember – one about a house full of people and their dying friend, grief, and dancing in the living room. And one that was like a beautiful miniature Cloud Street, about two families and their regular holidays in a country farmhouse, and the way they grow and change over the years. (There was gold over the hills and I knew there always would be).

6, 7 & 8. His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass).

Books can be like lighthouses. They can change everything.

I re-read this trilogy in preparation for the LONG-awaited sequel coming out later in the year. These books shaped my consciousness as an early teen so deeply, not just in my attitude to organised religion but spirituality, death, life, stories. If I believe in any kind of afterlife at all, metaphorically, it’s the one in these books. “We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.”


9. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I borrowed this from Mum on her recommendation, and really loved it. It’s jointly about Sara de Vos, the (fictional) Dutch Renaissance painter, and Ellie Shipley, the Australian art student who paints a forgery of her work in the 1950s, and then ends up being the curator of the exhibition half a decade later where the original and the forgery show up together. This summary doesn’t at all convey the beauty of the book and the way that it did things to me.

“There are pockets of time, she thinks, where every sense rings like a bell, where the world brims with fleeting grace.”

There was also this moment, when the older Ellie looks back on notebooks from her youth, and wow, it really hit home…

20170507_233423

 

10. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

Chris Hadfield is that awesome space guy who did a bunch of youtube videos about life on the International Space Station and answered random questions like ‘how do you brush your teeth in space?’ I like the idea of this very driven, high-achieving, incredibly intelligent man who is also able to do community outreach and share day-in-the-life stuff about the space station and living without gravity. He’s not exactly a poet, but the book was a fairly straightforward autobiography about a genuinely cool dude.

11. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

My only Gaiman for the year was his collection of re-tellings of the Norse myths. In addition to my burning need to read anything Neil has every written, as a literary nerd I do feel it’s important to know my source material. I do also love the concept of Ragnarok and the doomed battle in which we fight anyway, though there wasn’t much of that in this collection. And no matter how hard I tried, I could not for the life of me picture Loki as anyone other than Tom Hiddleston.

12. Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb (Book #3 of The Fitz & the Fool trilogy).

The final, final book. The last book of the last trilogy, and though there were some unexpected things that happened along the way it literally could not have ended any other way than it did. I always knew – we all always knew. There was a sense of fate about the ending, a story that had been left hanging for so long finally finished.

At 853 pages it was definitely my longest book for the year. Robin Hobb is, hands-down, the greatest creator of universes that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. These characters have been my companions for the last decade of my life. You wanna guess if this is one that made me cry?

13. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

The Tempest is my favourite Shakespeare (right up there with Macbeth), so how could I resist a re-working of it written by Margaret Atwood? This book was quite different to what I expected; at first I thought it was only loosely inspired by the play, but in the end, it tied in very closely. It was clever, and it was also (unexpectedly to me) quite funny, and a lot of fun. Who knew the writer of A Handmaid’s Tale could be fun?? She is an author of many talents.

14. The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Definitely the most bizarre book I read this year, even by Miéville’s standards. Set in Paris in a parallel World War 2, an American anti-Nazi group somewhat accidentally invents a new kind of bomb – the S-bomb, a bomb that releases surrealist energy and brings the dreams and nightmares of the surrealist movement to life. This book is basically surrealist art made literature, and also like doing a whooooole bunch of drugs. So kind of just your average Miéville novel, really.

15. Get Your Sh*t Together: How to stop worrying about what you should do so you can finish what you need to do and start doing what you want to do by Sarah Knight

I bought this self-help book because Laura and I saw it in the bookstore of the National Library in Canberra and because “get your shit together” is a regularly used phrase in our working relationship <3.

Spoiler alert: Even after reading this, I still do not, in fact, have my shit very together.

giphy

“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable and beautiful and afraid of nothing as though I had wings.” ― Mary Oliver

 

16. Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

I got this poetry collection out of the library because I kept writing down these quotes and bits of poems over the years and I eventually realised that all of these words that I loved belonged to the same person, and obviously I should check them out. I feel a year of reading is incomplete without one good book of poetry. These are my favourite kinds of poems; poems about nature and the self and beauty and paying attention, being awake.

 

17. Illuminae by Amy Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

By far and away the coolest, hippest book that I read this year. It’s a space-opera-zombie-thriller-hacker extravaganza. (Bec, this one is for you). This book is second only to House of Leaves in the awesome things it manages to do with its design and typography – and it’s much more of a page turner. Some of it is straight narrative but huge parts of the book are diagrams, found notes, ship’s logs, reports (with plenty of redacted swear words), emails, IM chat logs – you name it, it’s in here. It’s also (fair warning) book one of a trilogy, and the third one is not yet out (but should be coming in 2018).

18. A Fairy Tale by Jonas T. Bengtsson

This is the book of 2017 that I bought purely based on the cover and the blurb, and my well-established love of fairytales. This was translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund, and as with other translations I’ve read, I couldn’t tell if the style and the language was a result of the translation or the actual style that the book was originally written in. The story is about the relationship between father and son. And I really wanted to be invested in it; I tried, you guys. But I just couldn’t. Self-indulgent morally ambiguous characters and a plot that never seems to come to a point.

19. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I requested that my library order a copy of this book because after reading this article by George Saunders about his writing process, I immediately knew I had to read it. It’s about Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son, and about the ghosts in the graveyard and why they are stuck in a kind of limbo there. It’s a very strange book and it took me a while to get into it, but it was definitely worth it. And then a few months after I read it it went and won the Booker Prize, so I got to be all smug about my taste in literature to boot.

20. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson

First published in 1938, this is a charming little book about a shy and somewhat mousey housekeeper who ends up accidentally spending a day and a night with a glamorous nightclub singer and friends. It was very sweet and incredibly relatable (considering the decades behind it) until suddenly, near the very end of the book, out of nowhere, HOLY RACISM, BATMAN!! It was like being slapped across the face by an unexpected fish of racism. Wowzers.

21. The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick

I wasn’t one hundred percent sold on one of the main characters of this book, but the prose overcame my misgivings. One straight forward narrative about an astronomer (who seemed to make quite a few poor life choices?) and one slightly more magical-realism tale about a woman who sees the ghosts of her ancestors whenever a comet is passing over the earth. I got this one based on the lovely cover too, and wasn’t disappointed.

22. Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

This urban fantasy was spoiled for me only by the fact that I saw the Surprise Twist Ending coming at least a third of the way through the book, which always annoys me deeply (I don’t normally pick these things, so when I do I’m extra put-out). K assures me that the first book is very much establishing the universe, and the series broadens out from there. If you want to read about the Faerie Court rubbing elbows with modern city life, this might be for you, I guess?

23. Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

I hadn’t been planning on re-reading Anne of Green Gables, but when the most gorgeous golden-embossed hardback edition of it appeared through the library’s return chutes, how could I resist? (I spend most of the time in the library’s return’s room accumulating books I want to read, to be honest). I hadn’t read this book for at least 15 years, but it has definitely stood the test of time. It was another big influence on me as a child, as I ran around outdoors naming places things like ‘Violet Vale’ and ‘Bubbling Brook’. It also contains my earliest memory of crying my eyes out over a character death, for the first time in my 8-year-old-life. That sticks with you.

A beautiful uplifting read. If you haven’t (re)read it recently, you really should.

24. La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (Book 1 of The Book of Dust)

The second, even-longer-awaited sequel of the year. As I said above, His Dark Materials has had a huge impact on my life, and the last book of that trilogy was published in 2000. My wait time for this sequel was almost old enough to legally drink in Australia. It wins my Book Design of the Year Award: the dust jacket was beautiful enough, with this simple quote on the back of the illustrated cover, but an even further delight waited underneath – black hardback, speckled with gold. Just perfect. Don’t judge me, but my breath actually caught and I got all tingly when I first held it in my hands. I can’t wait to see where books 2 and 3 of The Book of Dust take us.


25. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Another one I read on recommendation from Mum; I don’t think she’s ever recommended me something that I didn’t love. (Hi Mum! Thanks!) I often profess a deep desire to avoid books and movies about the world wars, possibly after being emotionally scarred by watching Gallipoli and Life is Beautiful in high school – I can’t say that I really appreciate bleak, depressing stories. And yet I keep accidentally reading these excellent tales about Nazis (??) and Paris and wartime. I loved both of the main characters, a young French girl who goes blind at the age of six (and the prose descriptions of her experience of the world were amazingly handled) and a young German orphan who is a whiz kid at radio and joins the Hitler Youth to avoid a short and unpleasant life in the mines of his home town. Despite the setting, it was never a bleak story; the characters were too sympathetic and there was simply too much that was beautiful in it.

26. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

When your previous read was a serious one about Nazis and World War Two, you need to follow it up with something appropriately light; a nice little fairytale-esque story about a mouse who falls in love with a Princess was just the thing. I unashamedly enjoyed this little book, and was unexpectedly touched by the ending, which turned out to be a perfect summary of another reading year:

Despereaux

Advertisements

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nick
    Jan 07, 2018 @ 10:18:15

    In your honest, sometimes painfully so (I mean should I just start calling you Ellie?) and oft hilarious way you have as always provided a wonderful window into your literary world. I have found some light here.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s